The metadata on the FSA-OWI corpus is incredibly rich, thanks to the meticulous work of the Library of Congress.  It includes a mixture of human-readable information, such as the photographer’s name, as well as fields that are a bit more… cryptic.

Exploring these MARC records, we became curious about a letter and number suffixed to the end of some of the call numbers. These numbers ranged from one through five, so attached to the call numbers was “-M1″, “-M2″, and so on. Looking more closer, we realized that some photos had an identical call number, with the only difference being this mysterious M number.  So, two photos could be LC-USF33-016166-M1 and then LC-USF33-016166-M2. We were excited about the possibilities these numbers, which seemed to imply a kind of sequence.  And they started make more sense once we explored the history of the FSA-OWI’s shooting method.

While we are used to the idea of a 36-exposure roll of camera film (at least those of us who remember shooting film!), the FSA-OWI photographers did not use this conventional standard. Instead, they took with them extremely long runs of film that were cut according to their needs. After taking their pictures, the film was sent to Washington, D.C. to be processed. During this procedure the long film rolls were cut into strips, most often of five exposures.

Since most of the photographs were digitized from the negatives,  the Library of Congress inadvertently provided essential information in the metadata that indicated the sequence of photographs within a given five-shot strip! Using the statistical program R and the code below, we were able to put the strips back together.


The result of this analysis was a strip of (usually) five photographs with their original order restored:

With the individual pictures put back into order — at least in sequences of five —  we can then examine the first and last picture in each strip. If we find an obvious match it means the end of one strip can be connected to the beginning of another. In many cases, we can then put the five-shot strips back into order, as part of the long film rolls that they originally came from.

We did precisely this with John Vachon’s trip from Kenosha, Wisconsin to Chicago, Illinois in July 1941.

The reconstruction of strips is not only a great visual way to represent the data, but also an exciting development for scholars.  We can now begin to track the journey of the photographers, as well as see their line of vision. In this case, we get a feeling for Vachon’s sense of humor.  Starting in Kenosha,  each photograph is of cheese, with the final shot in the sequence stating, “Stop Cheese.” This last image suggests both his playfulness — and his exhaustion!

Vachon becomes more serious as he transitions to Chicago: the first shot in that city is of a middle-aged man with his heard in his hand.  Out of millions of possibilities, Vachon chose this subject as his first image in the city; a critical stance as he captures the transition from abundance to poverty. The contrast between the Wisconsin cheese images and the man sitting on a Chicago street corner, presumably with access to few resources, augments the commentary by the photographer.

This is only the beginning of the type of analysis possible for this particular set of strips from Vachon’s trip through the Midwest, not to mention other strips and rolls from the collection. In future posts, we’ll look at how we can display photographs in their original sequence on a web page, to guide browsers in the footsteps of the original photographer and their  journey.

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